Caveat: This post doesn’t address children who have medical problems related to food — those with severe allergies, or illnesses or genetic issues which make limiting or controlling their diets essential. The advice here does not apply to those cases!
About a year ago, I was having dinner with one of my friends, who has a three year old daughter. This was a picnic sort of dinner, not a formal dinner; and the little girl was far more interested in playing with the other kids than in eating. Repeatedly, the mother kept dragging her child back to the table, insisting that she eat some chicken, another carrot stick, “just three more bites” of the baked beans.
Food is a fraught issue for many parents.
On the one hand, we want our kids to eat good, nutritious food. On the other hand, deciding for a child how much they should eat and what sort of food often turns out to be counterproductive.
For one thing, when we usurp a child’s ability to make decisions about how much and what to eat, we’re not teaching good eating habits – on the contrary, we risk teaching our child to ignore information given to them by their own bodies. This is especially true when we have rules like “Clean your plate,” or “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” These rules compel a child to continue eating when she isn’t hungry anymore, out of fear of punishment or hope of reward.
How is a child to learn to pay attention to whether she is actually hungry, or what foods are good to eat, if we override the child’s own appetite and tastes?
Further, micromanaging what our kids eat can backfire. Your toddler may not be able to control many things, but she can control whether she eats or not. We’re risking food becoming a battleground, and that’s a battle the kid will almost always win.
The best approach, I think, is laissez-faire.
That is, recognize that you aren’t in charge of making your child eat. You’re in charge of making sure a good variety of nutritious, tasty food is available for your child. Whether they eat or not is their decision.
How do we keep the kid from living on gummy bears, then? Well, don’t make gummy bears available. Make other foods available instead – blueberries, or apples, whatever food you actually want your child eating. Also, it’s a good idea to vary the foods you make available. Don’t only present carrot sticks or roast chicken, in other words. Kids get sick of eating the same thing every day just as adults do.
The key point, though, is make the food available. Don’t try to force your kid to eat it.
Still, this doesn’t solve every problem. What if your kid just won’t eat?
In this situation, I’d think first about why the kid isn’t eating. Are they ill? Are they three?
Three is the age most kids start refusing food. First, for most children this age is when their growth slows dramatically – they may really just not need as much food, in other words. Second, three year olds have their attention on so many other exciting things that food just loses its attraction. Third, many three year olds are hunting ways to assert their autonomy. If you make this the hill they can fight you on, they’re happy to fight on it*.
If food has become a battleground – the (only) place where the child can assert her autonomy, maybe back off. Stop making food an issue, and your kid will stop seeing it as a place where they can assert control. Maybe also give the kid other areas to be autonomous in: let them choose their own clothing, for instance, or decide about whether they will take a bath now or tomorrow.
Avoid – at all costs – making a fuss over whether and what they’re eating. Don’t coax them to eat more; don’t praise them for eating a lot. Don’t scold or praise them for the food choices they have made. You attitude should be that eating isn’t something they do to make you, their parent, happy (or unhappy). It’s something they do because their bodies tell them they’re hungry. And when they’re not hungry anymore, let them quit eating.
What about if they just don’t want to eat at mealtimes, because they’re more interested in doing something else? Well, again, if we avoid making food a battleground, this probably won’t happen very often. When it does happen, let them go do something else. And if they want a snack later, let them have one. The snacks you have on hand are all nutritious and healthy, so really does it matter whether they eat at meal time or not? If you don’t make every meal a fight, your kid will want to eat at the table with you, mostly, because if you’re not fighting over food, you can spend your meals having actual conversations instead – giving your child attention, which they crave much more than even gummy bears.
An alternative approach I call “one bite won’t kill you.”
This tactic will only work if you haven’t made food a battleground. The One Bite Won’t Kill You rule means the kid gets to eat what she wants, except that at meals, a (very small**) serving of everything is put on her plate, and the kid has to eat one bite. You can define “one bite” how you like; I defined it as one pea, one small forkful of chicken, a single cube of carrot.
And even this, though, I’d quit as your child gets older. For small children, compelling them to take at least one bite helps to ensure they won’t get locked into eating only a few foods – the macaroni and gummy bears problem. But older children, say from ten or twelve on, can be allowed to make these decisions for themselves.
And, of course, this speaks to the larger issue of autonomy and agency. Your primary goal is (clearly) to keep your child fed and well-nourished. But your ultimate goal is raising an adult who knows how to feed herself. And for girls, especially, a clear understanding of who should and should not have control over their bodies is essential. That’s not water you want to muddy.
*Obviously, if your child actually isn’t eating anything at all, that’s a whole different problem. Bring in a physician if that happens.
**By “very small,” I mean very small. Give your children very tiny servings of everything – like one teaspoonful of potatoes, six peas, two bite-sized pieces of chicken – and they will be much more likely to eat willingly.
(Photographs: Girl Eating by kellyhogaboom; Gummybears by Thomas Rosenau; Nutritious meal by Goddards Pies Unlimited. All via Wiki Commons.)